Is it really only Wednesday?

The past two days of accusations, counter claims and u-turns have left this observer feeling weary, questioning the abilities of press officers, but growing increasingly excited about the upcoming twists and turns in this campaign.

Whilst most of the country was only interested in a great British (Scottish?) triumph at the Australian Open; we were instead to be found spending our Sunday morning watching the Shadow Chancellor’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show. George Osborne insisted he was sticking to his guns and making immediate cuts to reduce the national deficit.

But it appears someone forgot to inform him that David Cameron had other ideas. Perhaps that trip to Davos really had been transformative.

For later that morning, appearing on the Politics Show, Big Dave wanted to reassure the public that his administration would not implement any “swingeing cuts”. So who had gone off script we wondered? Labour and the Lib Dems jumped on the conflicting messages, accusing the Tories of a u-turn.

We arrived into the office on Monday with news that Labour HQ were going to let their “James Bond” loose to capitalise on the Conservative confusion.

And so Lord Mandelson summoned the city’s hacks to Victoria Street for a round of Tory bashing. Expecting the usual assured performance, our suspicions were first raised when the press release for the event was released. It seems a few more talented press officers could be required at Labour HQ if the best title they could think of was: ‘Instead of bobbing around like a cork in water David Cameron should level with the British people – Mandelson’.

Not exactly snappy.

Liam Byrne and Yvette Cooper stood meekly at the side of the stage, before Mandy glided to the podium and addressed us.  Osborne and Cameron – or Laurel and Hardy as the dark Prince coined them – were guilty of confusion and delay, he warned. The Tories, he said, very slowly and with a strange glint in his eye, would “strangle the recovery at birth”.

Quite the phrase.

Then he went and ruined it. Because Mandy decided the hapless press officer who had coined the clunky phrase was worthy of a mention, and so he publicly called Big Dave “a cork”. Yes, a cork. Followed by a turn as Anne Robinson in which Mandy suggested Cameron remove “his weakest link” (Osborne obviously, do keep up). 

Not the greatest performance by the First Secretary of State. A little too hastily arranged we agreed.

But it had stung the Tories. They used Twitter to mysteriously announce they would be fighting back later that day. When asked what was happening, no one seemed to have much information.

Possibly because the ‘Labour cuts’ campaign they launched later that afternoon wasn’t exactly brimming with new ideas or too much detail.

More was needed. Philip Hammond was allowed do some interviews, but it was not enough.

George would have to go face his critics it was decided. So they sent him to the British Museum the next day to explain his ‘eight-point pledge’ on economic policy. He was going to make Britain a nation of savers, he told us. How? Well the detail would be sorted out later. He was going to invest in green technologies, high-speed rail and broadband. How would he pay for this? All would be revealed at a later date. Hmm. Okay.

Lord Stern was going to advise them he announced. Oh no, actually later that day he was at pains to point out he would not.

“Judge me against these benchmarks”, George cried. Perhaps if you provided us will a little bit more detail we could. If Mandy had seemed a little flat on Monday, the Boy George was positively prancing with nerves on Tuesday. Never the most convincing of public speakers, this turn was proving particularly difficult for him. With half of the Shadow Cabinet also in attendance, at one point he begged the press pack to ask them a question and give him a break. The scent of blood was in the air and poor George floundered as he sought to convince us there had been no conflicting message, no disagreement and certainly no change in direction.

So its been quite the interesting start to the week. A completely lacklustre performance by Mandelson but he still managed to outshine Osborne who is beginning to show the strain more and more as we edge closer to polling day. 

 Oh and the Lib Dems have not escaped unscathed either. Vince Cable’s reaction to the debacle was to suggest that Osborne’s benchmarks were “motherhood and apple pie politics”. Have the parties got any decent press officers between them?!


Floody Tories

Cumbria, in case anyone remains oblivious to the news, is very wet right now. A foot of rain fell in one day about a week ago and many more inches have fallen since. Yet the political storm has yet to hit.

The press has bombarded us with images of swollen rivers and broken bridges, of waterlogged homes and communities cut off. We have even been treated to inspirational story of a dutiful policeman washed away while helping to keep others safe.

So far so apolitical.

Of course weather is sometimes very political. But this is no Hurricane Katrina. This is not a weather pattern tracked over hundreds of miles. White folk were not evacuated from its path while black folk were left to die. The recovery effort has not been fudged with fatal consequence by incompetent federal agencies run by unsuitable pals of an unpopular president.

Instead this is an unpredictable and entirely unprecedented event. And it is literally unprecedented. At no time in history has anywhere in Britain recorded the level of rainfall that Cumbria suffered in one wet day last week. Meanwhile those sent to put up temporary flood barriers and provide supplies to affected communities have done a stellar job.

But none of this can stop the matter turning political.

Letters to editors have started to hint ever so slightly that the public is ready to see the floods exploited. Some have attacked the Government for building homes on flood plains. Others have criticised the blocking of flood prevention plans that would harm biodiversity. More routinely people have argued we could spend more on flood defences if we left Afghanistan alone.

What these letters are not, is a signal to the Tories to go on the attack. Whether the individual points are fair or not, some egotistical nut will always write to the papers with their often ill-conceived wisdom. And in the internet age editors are keen to publish them if they court controversy.

Instead the Tories have a tricky balance to strike here. They don’t want ‘events’ disrupting the normal flow of politics while they have a large lead in the polls. Events are unpredictable. Appearing to exploit them can damage public support and turn people in favour of Governments. However, Gordon Brown’s popularity peaked when the country was hit by terrorism, Foot and Mouth, and flooding all at once in 2007. So events can’t be ignored either, for fear of leaving Labour to pick up easy points.

Various Tory MEPs, councillors and other bods have thus started calling for flood related inquiries. Their list of issues includes flood defences, the speed of response, planning, house building, and more besides. It is possible that this is testing the water ahead of a more focused line of attack. But it feels premature and disorganised, as though the individuals involved might just have got a little carried away with themselves.

If so that should worry David Cameron. His party is not on solid ground if a policy debate arises. After all, it was only a month ago that they ruled out the promise of a flood bill in their first term.

And consider that for a moment. Would anyone really blame any party for prioritising Afghanistan, crime, education, the NHS, banking, climate change and unemployment over costly preparations for weather conditions never before seen in Britain?

When the flooding subsides I suspect the answer will be no. And so does the Tory leadership. Hence their headline announcement today is on recycling, not rainwater. But they are now asking questions. They may do so quietly. And they don’t want answers. But they are asking so as to hint at Government failure and to foster a small degree of public discontent. And that is a shame.

It is a shame because the Tories want the public to stop looking to Government for answers to every problem.  And surely the weather is a perfect illustration of the state’s limitations.

Breaking a promise is rarely this easy

David Cameron broke his cast iron promise of a Lisbon Treaty referendum on Wednesday. And since then everything has gone his way.

The promise fell apart this week because the treaty was finally ratified. It is now the basis of EU law. Un-signing would thus need a time machine or, and this is even less worthy of serious consideration, withdrawal from a trading block that makes up most of Britain’s trade.

So the Tories got off lightly with their common sense and widely expected move. While the Mail and Express whinged from the sidelines, the Sun rewarded Mr Cameron with a double page spread in which to recast a new pledge. And this one should prove less brittle.  

Refusing to hand over new powers is easy with no grand new treaty in the offing. So he promised that.

A Sovereignty Bill to equip English courts to interpret European law will amount to little in practice. So he promised that.

And attempting to negotiate a repatriation of powers need go only so far as ‘attempting’. So he promised that too.

Promising future referenda if another treaty crops up is also a headline grabbing pleasantry. It won’t bind the future governments who actually face new treaties, but it does at least maintain a popular euro-sceptic tone. So he promised that easy to keep and ignore pledge too.

But the real boon for David Cameron has been the response from his party.  

The Expenses scandal saw a lot of the old guard stand down to be replaced by fresh-faced central-office-friendly newbies. And that posed a problem. It was too clean and too easy. The dodgy wing of the Conservative Party that the public didn’t like and didn’t trust was swept aside without a fight. All very fortuitous. 

This matters to Cameron because he wants to be more than the lucky General of misinterpreted Napoleonic fame. He wants to be bold. He wants to be strong. He wants to prove his will and determination to modernise his party himself. In short he wants to be Tony Blair facing down left-wing cliques in the 1990s.  

Lisbon has given him a chance to at least appear that way, though without the risk of defeat that came attached to a simple vote on Clause Four.

A large part of his party still wants a referendum. And they have, in small but noteworthy numbers, publicly suggested voting on a renegotiation mandate.

This would of course be a high profile waste of time and money. David Cameron always refused to extend his pledge beyond ratification for that reason. He knew the rest of Europe could and would just ignore it. And he doesn’t want his Ministers hamstrung by, or his Government judged against, such a mandate.  

So this can help his image.

Right wing oddballs from far and wide can condemn him as often as they like and he will relish them doing so. Lord Tebbit for example is appalled, while MEPs David Hannan and Roger Helmer stood down from frontbench positions in protest. Mr Hannon, for those who forget, was briefly but widely hated by the public for his outspoken desire to scrap the NHS.

David Cameron can stand firm against these people with little risk to his electoral prospects as they make him look all the more moderate. A greater concern will be losing votes to UKIP at the next election. But the impression that he’ll sacrifice votes to take a much needed “tough” decision will probably win round more people than UKIP can steal.  

So for all the pain that Europe has caused the Tories in years gone by, it seems David Cameron is well in command of what the issue means for him, and how to turn it to his advantage.

Oh, and being insulted as ‘autistic’ by a French politician hardly goes down badly with English voters either.